Trevin Wax: If the “gospel” itself then is the declaration of Christ’s lordship, where does the doctrine of justification come into play?
N.T. Wright: The doctrine of justification comes into play because the whole plan of God is and has been right since the Fall to sort out the mess that the world is in. We British say “to put the world to rights.” I’ve discovered that that’s not the way Americans say it and people scratch their heads and say, “Funny… what does he mean by that?” It means to fix the thing, to make it all better again.
And that is there because God is the Creator God, he doesn’t want to say, “Okay, creation was very good, but I’m scrapping it.” He wants to say, “Creation is so good that I’m going to rescue it.” How he does that is by establishing his covenant with Abraham.
The covenant with Abraham is designed therefore, not to create a little people off on one side, because the rest of creation is going to hell and God just wants this folk to be his friends, but to be the means by which the rest of the world get in on the act. And that’s so woven into the Old Testament.
So that when we then get the New Testament writings, we find this sense that God has now done this great act to put the world to rights and it’s the death and resurrection of Jesus that does that, which sets up a dynamic whereby we can look forward to the day when we will be fully complete (Romans 8), when the whole creation will be renewed.
Then there is this odd thing that we are called by the gospel to be people who are renewed in advance of that final renewal. And there’s that dynamic which is a salvation dynamic. God’s going to do the great thing in the future, and my goodness, he’s doing it with us already in the present!
And then the justification thing comes in because within that narrative, we have also the sense that because the world is wrong and is out of joint and is sinful and all the rest of it, this is also a judicial, a law-court framework, and that’s the law-court language of justification.
So we say that the future moment when God will finally do what God will finally do, he will declare, by raising them from the dead: “These people are in the right!” That’s going to happen in the future.
And then justification by faith says, that verdict too is anticipated in the present. And when somebody believes in the gospel of Jesus Christ, even if their moral life has been a mess, even if they’re not from the right family, they didn’t go to the right school, they have no money in their pockets… God says, “You are my beloved child. With you I am well pleased.” The verdict of the future is brought forward into the present on the basis of faith and faith alone, and faith is the result of God’s grace through the gospel of Jesus crucified and risen.
Now, of course, there are so many different things which cluster around justification. The debates of the last four hundred years have swirled around. But that is the shape we find in Paul. Paul is the beginning of the real exposition of this. And that’s where I always go back to.
Trevin Wax: You have said in many of your books that justification is not how one becomes a Christian but a declaration that one is a Christian. What language do you use to explain how one becomes a Christian?
N.T. Wright: Let’s be clear about this because many Christians in the evangelical tradition use words like “conversion,” “regeneration,” “justification,” “born-again,” etc. all as more or less synonyms to mean “becoming a Christian from cold.” In the classic Reformed tradition, the word “justification” is much more fine-tuned than that and has to do with a verdict which is pronounced, rather than with something happening to you in terms of actually being born again. So that I’m actually much closer to some classic Reformed writing on this than some people perhaps realize.
Let me put it like this. In Paul (and this is really a Pauline conversation, after all), what happens is that the word of the gospel is announced. That is to say, Jesus Christ is proclaimed – one-on-one or in a large meeting or out on the street or whatever, and even though that message is crazy (and Paul knows it’s crazy; he says it’s folly to Gentiles and a scandal to Jews), some people find that it grabs them and they believe it. This is bizarre. I shouldn’t be believing this. A dead man got raised from the dead and he’s the Lord of the world. I really shouldn’t believe this, but it does make sense. And it finds me and I can feel it changing me. Paul’s analysis of that is that this is the power of the word (he has a strong theology of the word), and another equal way of saying it for Paul is that this is the Holy Spirit working through the gospel. He says, no one can say that Jesus Christ is Lord except by the Holy Spirit.
So, the Holy Spirit is the One who through the Word does the work of grace which is the transformative thing, and the first sign of that new life is faith.
Now then, the point of justification is not God making you right. The irony is that some of my critics at this point have accused me of a sort of semi-Pelagianism. But that’s precisely what I think I’m not doing. The verdict of justification is God saying over faith, “This really is my beloved child.”
Now part of the difficulty we face is that because different Christian traditions have used the word “justification” to denote either different stages within that process or sometimes the whole process itself. (Hans Kung’s book on justification is really a book on how to be a Christian from start to finish. And so for him, justification means the entire process: from being a total pagan to being a finally saved Christian, and that’s really not helpful in Pauline terms, but there’s been a lot of slippage.) So when people say, “he says that justification is this, but I’ve always thought it was that” it’s probably because we’re denoting a different point in the process.
My only agenda here is to be as close as I can possibly get to what Paul actually says. And I really don’t care too much what the different later Christian traditions say. My aim is to be faithful to Scripture here.
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